The untydras of Beowulf

September 24, 2008 at 12:20 am (Anglo-Saxon, beowulf)

I’m going to SEMA next week to give this thing.  It needs a bit of work before it’s giveable.  I am not very good at revising after the first mad rush of writing.  I guess that’s why they call it work.


The Beowulf poet introduces Grendel as one of the kin of Cain, from whom all the untydras spring: “Þanon untydras ealle onwocon” (111).  While a great deal of critical attention has been paid to the nature and origins of the individual members of the genus untydras, very little exploration has been undertaken on untydras as a word.  Most editors of Beowulf translate untydras in line with Klaeber’s gloss of “evil progeny.” Whether the translator’s choice is ‘evil progeny,’ ‘monster,’ or ‘bad broods,’ the untydras are almost always associated explicitly with evil.  However, as Thalia Feldman notes in her 1981 article “Grendel and Cain’s Descendants,” “in no single other instance is either untyd or untydre used in OE with such moral connotations” (75).  While context is often the ultimate arbiter in translation, we should not lose sight of philology, which may in turn complicate our perception of the operative context.

I argue that translators have been too quick to accept Klaeber’s moralistic gloss in rendering connotative judgment on the untydras of Beowulf. My in-depth study of the Old English corpus supports Feldman’s claim that the connotation of evil is simply not there in other usages outside of Beowulf, and I explore possibilities for a more complex and multivalent gloss. Latin glosses, leechbooks, poetry, and prose show that forms of –tydr- related to progeny and breeding are demonstrably the most common in the corpus.  However, translations related to progeny are not the only option; confusions in headword entries, orthographic variations, and Latin glosses suggest associations with physical and moral weakness, barrenness, and destruction, all of which may enrich our understanding of the nature of the monstrous body and monstrous becoming in Beowulf.



  1. Mary Kate said,

    that looks absolutely fascinating. I hope I can make it to your session! In any case — looking forward to meeting you 🙂

  2. zwellstood said,

    Not sure if this comment will ever get seen since this post is pretty old, but if you happen to see it, has this paper been published or is it available? I’m very interested in this. As I was reading my OE copy of Beowulf, I came across “untydras,” and it seemed unusual. When I googled it, this page was the most relevant (and the first) to come up! Thanks!!

  3. Michelle Parsons said,

    I am with zwellstood. I am actually working on the evolution of terms applied to monsters in Old and Early Middle English. Any chance I could chat with you about your work? Or has this been published in some form?

    • Karma said,

      it hasn’t been published. I have left academia so it will never be. I am happy to send you what I have if it’s still relevant as a question in your research at all – though I realize it might not be at this late date. Sorry for the late response – my life went a bit upside down after I left my last teaching post and did a radical career change. If you are working on medieval monsters and haven’t already run into the organization MEARCSTAPA, check it out. Great folks.

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